After New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie spoke at the department of political science’s annual Gilbert Lecture, and a busy day on Swarthmore’s campus, he spoke to The Phoenix about higher education, journalism, and civic engagement. Below is an edited transcript.
Daniel Perrin: What does it mean for you to be giving this lecture on Election Day? You know, obviously, it’s an off year. It’s not a midterm or presidential election, but there’s still symbolic meaning in that. What are your thoughts on that?
Jamelle Bouie: I think it’s totally an appropriate time to be here. It’s funny, I voted this morning and was like, “oh, yeah, this is very relevant.” It’s very relevant to think about voting itself, and our political system more broadly on a day when many Americans are voting. There was some conversation about voting during the Q&A. So yeah, I’m sort of glad that it fortuitously lined up that I’m giving this talk on election day. I think this day is as good as any to be thinking in a broader way about American politics.
DP: Swarthmore is a college that prides itself on a history of social justice. But obviously, as a private college, we always have work to do, as does any institution. What do you think about the role of higher education and the liberal arts in creating a more politically active, socially just world?
JB: When I think about higher education spaces, I think about how there aren’t very many places in American life where people can just be around each other and be together and talk about issues in a broad and expansive way. And sometimes in inchoate ways, when people aren’t entirely sure what they think, but there’s still enough confidence or sense of safety to speak and not have to worry about getting pounced on.
I think, at their best, institutions of higher education can be those sorts of spaces. That, to me, is the role they can play as just places of dialogue, places of discourse. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always going to be without conflict or friction. I think that comes with discourse and dialogue. When I was in college, I led this weekly current events discussion group (of course I did). Sometimes there’d be food, we always tried to keep things casual, but, you know, people get in arguments. Sometimes, those arguments got a little heated, but that was sort of… okay. Yeah, it was important in the aftermath for all of us to say “Sorry if I said anything too harsh,” and be mindful of the other person’s feelings, because I think that there just aren’t very many spaces to do that. Institutions of higher education can be wonderful and important, especially because they’re in person. I think it’s the in-person engagement. That is really critical.
DP: What occupied your mind when you were in college? And what advice do you have for young people in college or not in college who care about the world as to what the best path forward is?
JB: When I was in college I was in a debating society and I did this current affairs discussion group. But I was also doing non-political stuff … I was [a resident assistant]. I was engaged. I was actually very active in residential life, that was a thing that I really cared about. I spent a lot of time reading with my friends, doing lots of college kid things, but I cared very much about current events, and arguing about politics or history. All these things I look back on and think, “Oh, that was super useful!” Not in a career way but just in a socialization way, learning how to talk to people and disagree with them. Learning how to keep things friendly, as much as possible. Learning how to accept when someone has out-argued me and I’m wrong about something and I just have to live with that. I think all of that is healthy.
As to what I say to students in college, I don’t know if this applies as much to kids at Swarthmore right now, but I knew plenty of kids at UVA, who might have wanted to study history, or philosophy, or religious studies, or just any of the humanities, but felt that they couldn’t because they had to think about the kind of job they were going to get afterwards. I was lucky to have parents who were weirdly hands-off about my education, But I would say that now is the time to pursue anything you might find even remotely interesting. You never know if it’s going to be useful or relevant. You never know if you’re gonna miss it. Just pursue it. There were a lot of things I wish I had done. And a lot of things I’m glad I did do. I took a bunch of classes on Russian literature because they just happened to be open. And I’m forever grateful for that because I loved it. That would be my advice. Pursue whatever seems worthwhile, because opportunities to do that become very slim very quickly.
DP: Finally, how do you see the work that you do for the New York Times, such a large scale, “all the news that’s fit to print” national newspaper, relate to what you talked about tonight, but also in the concept of creating a commentary on the country and the world? And how do you see your role in that?
JB: That’s always a good question. Like I said, it actually is hard for me to gauge whatever influence or impact I have. So, I don’t necessarily write with that impact in my mind. When I write, I’m thinking about what’s interesting to me. What intervention can I make on this subject that is worthwhile? When it comes to thinking about my impact, I sincerely don’t know if any policy makers read me, I don’t know. But what I sincerely hope is that I can at least stimulate readers, wherever they may be, to practice thinking just a little more deeply about the country they live in. I want to stimulate in readers a practice of thinking a little more deeply about the country’s history. And making that kind a regular thing to do in one’s life to make it part of your civic engagement.
Every so often, I get an email from a high school student or a college student or graduate student or from someone who says a thing they read that I wrote encouraged a path of study, something they decided to do, and I’m always happy to read those things. That’s an influence that matters to me. I care about providing a space on a newspaper page for people to join me for the week in thinking out loud about the country in big ways and in ways that are little and adjacent to everyday political controversy. I try to be a model for good faith and intellectual honesty, and to really say when I’m wrong. I’ve tried to demonstrate a kind of humility in my position, which is the thing you have to do to actively cultivate given the platform.
DP: Any final thoughts for the Swarthmore community?
JB: It’s been a real pleasure to be at Swarthmore. Thank you.